Most kitchens aren’t like they were in olden days – a whole hell of a lot has changed in the last couple of decades and I don’t think any of us expected to be here, with the current state of the industry. A lot of young cooks don’t even know what it might have been like a decade or two ago – the landscape has changed in ways managers and owners are having trouble keeping up with. There’s a huge disconnect and growing tension between the aging chef generation and the up and coming millennial generation. Every single day I get an email from a restaurant owner complaining about how their 20-something line cooks won’t do things the way they are supposed to. I get similar messages from cooks of that age, bitching right back about the owners and how misunderstood they feel. By the end of this article, I’m convinced you’ll have a better understanding of handle almost all of your restaurant problems that relate to personnel.
(IF YOU’RE LAZY OR DON’T HAVE TIME TO READ A LONG ARTICLE, PLEASE AT LEAST READ THE END – IT MIGHT CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK – THERE’S A HEADER W/ WHERE TO PICK BACK UP)
Let me set the scene. Just a few decades ago, a chef was just a cook and a manager and it was a title he could take pride in. I use the word he deliberately here because for the longest time, this has been a male-dominated occupation. Finally, the dynamic is starting to shift, though I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the old-guard find themselves reluctant to embrace such change. We’re in complicated times now, though. Many kitchen printers are being replaced with order screens. There are smart burners that keep exact temperature and notify us when a piece of fish or steak is done, and there are already robots that can follow recipes, that will start to cast a dark cloud upon the standard line cook position over the next ten years. Inventory can kind of track itself, our computers are able to optimize our labor for, and the more connected we become to the internet, technology, artificial intelligence and all of the pieces to the puzzle that seem to advance us a society – seem to actually disconnect us in personally.
The age difference working at any given food service establishment in the United States could realistically span up to 55 years. That means, for the eldest, let’s say 70 years old, he or she was 15 years old before color TVs came into existence. 15-year-olds now? They’ve been walking around with a color TV in their pockets for years and can literally watch whatever they want – it’s called a smartphone. That only scratches the surface of how wide the gap is between their experiences and their understandings of the way the world works.
So the question becomes – what do we do about it? How do we close the gap and work better together?
I’ve got something to say to both sides, some words of wisdom at the bottom and an argument for all of us to read and embrace at the end.
So, here goes…
TO THE YOUNG COOKS & CHEFS:
Up until the late 80s (when you might or might not have been born), there was no modernist cuisine. There was no reverse spherification or sodium alginate. There were no water baths for sous viding, and Polyscience hadn’t come around to invent the Smoking Gun or any of their other fun gadgets. There were no farmer’s markets in every town. Organic? It existed, but few chefs had access to it and no one was talking about it. Finally, the actual dining scene – it didn’t really exist – there were restaurants, but fun and interesting concepts didn’t exist. It was primarily French cuisine cooked in a few restaurants in every town (and country clubs), a handful of neighborhood Mexican restaurants, a take-out Chinese joint, delivery pizza, and a handful of American restaurants – like Applebees and Ruby Tuesdays. Food was, in a sense – generic. Chefs weren’t hired to create “out of the box, “holy shit”, what is on this menu?” types of dishes – the diners weren’t ready for it yet, because Food Network didn’t pop up until 1992, which brought a diversity of cuisine to every household in America.
Without a doubt, the greatest technological impact on the kitchen over the last decade has been social media and the internet. It allows us to interact with the food differently. It allows us to learn about the food differently (through tutorials on YouTube), it allows us to find recipes in an instant, as well as information about ingredients, seasonality, freshness, storage, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, this provides diners with the very same information – the world we live in now has us all more curious and inquisitive – we can have the answers to anything we want just by asking Siri.
But, for you youngsters, just imagine this: twenty years ago, if cooks and chefs wanted to find out something new (a recipe, ingredient, some knowledge), they had to look through The Food Lover’s Companion (an encyclopedia of all things kitchen) stop by the local library to checkout a book, or they could plead with their chef, begging him to share the trade secrets that he always keeps close to the vest. Chefs back in the day, figured it out as they went – they didn’t have the internet to answer every single question they might have about an ingredient or a dish within a few seconds. The way you see cooking now – it might make sense, but it might not make sense to someone who learned how to make a hollandaise by reading a recipe and trying it a hundred times before getting it to work. You? All you have to do is pull up your favorite chef on YouTube. These chefs that you’re working for had to labor hours and sometimes years to learn the same information – this is the exact reason why there is a hierarchy some veteran chefs adamantly uphold, because over time and with experience, one grows in the craft and only after a certain level of exposure and experience can one truly become a chef. The problem with that argument for them, is that cooks are being exposed to the answers at a younger age than ever – thus, the only thing most cooks lack (aside from some business acumen) is the experience to execute – with due time, that will come and soon, the cheaper millennials will be competing for these jobs that they never would have been able to two decades ago.
Finally, what you must understand about the veteran cooks walking the thousands of kitchens around the world, is that they are loyal to the core. They missed children being born, birthday parties, weddings, holidays – work came first. This doesn’t mean that you have to approach these situations the exact same way, but it helps if you understand where the person on the other side is coming from – the chef needs to see your commitment – sometimes that’s in staying late, other times it’s picking up a shift for a co-worker, and other times it’s just executing at your craft to the highest level – if you take care of the work, the rest will take care of itself.
TO VETERAN COOKS & CHEFS:
If you’re reading this, you’ve most likely made the journey from young, ignorant line cook or dishwasher, to where you are today, somewhere on the back half of your career. Your longevity in this industry is in question and your knees reinforce those sentiments every time you reach down to pull something out of the low-boy.
The fact is, things were done differently back in the day. Hell, they were starting to do things differently ten years ago in a lot of kitchens, though there are still some running like in decades past – the Brigade system. But, there is no denying the kitchen hierarchy is a dying breed. It, in theory, still makes sense – the problem is with the immediacy in which we all want results this day and age – especially the youngest generations that are joining the workforce. Plus, they’ve been conditioned with Food Network, Top Chef, and Hell’s Kitchen – they see a rare classmate or distant sous chef get some fame and exposure on TV and it spreads like wildfire across social media. Even the idea of obtaining a Michelin Star – many young cooks and, dare I say chefs, tell me they want their first Star before they turn 30. Before 30? Most properly trained Japanese chefs are still mastering rice and vegetables into their mid to late twenties.
The problem is we see these things happening – it’s all around us – literally right in front of our eyes and in our pockets at almost every moment of the day – the dopamine rush of getting that like on Instagram or Facebook and that comment on how beautiful our plate is which was left by a chef we really admire – this shit happens and it can have a profound impact on one’s self-worth and the way they interact socially. This is where we are as a society and as a result, an industry, we’d be remiss to stop anywhere short of acknowledging that.
You don’t need to go to culinary school any more and in a lot of cases, I’d urge individuals not to go. Don’t get me started on the outrageous student debt most culinary grads have to pay off by the time they’ve earned their degrees. It’s a complete scam, our government should be ashamed of itself, but without going off on a complete rant – I will just say this – the cost of living is more expensive and how can anyone afford to make 10 bucks an hour living in a decent size city? Add student loan on top of the mix and you’re completely fucked. 100% fucked. Now, you either suck it up and hope you make it out of the other end alive, or you end up doing something completely unrelated to why you went to school in the first place – I see it all the time as an adjunct professor at the local culinary school.
Given this dynamic, it’s completely reasonable for a youngster coming out of school to try their damndest to work their way up to the top – however they can – build a brand through social media platforms, hoping for that one and a million chance to make it big on reality TV, or just through hard work, networking and lastly – looking out for themselves and their own best interest, when in the past it’s always been about the team, paying one’s dues and working one’s way up the ladder the right way. It’s a different ladder or set of ladders the younger generation is having to learn to climb up and there are doing so in the best way they know how.
SOME ADVICE: Embrace the technology. Yes, the tools that keep your business engaged with the community (social media) and operating efficiently (POS systems, etc), but also embrace the technology as it relates to your younger employees. Instead of being the old curmudgeon who seems so disconnected by way in which young people communicate today, seek to understand the technology and the way they interact more. Show them a certain level of curiosity and you will instantly have a deeper connection with them. This will also keep you up to date with current trends, but more importantly, this level of trust will come to the surface. Then, when you need to enforce the rules, they’ll listen and pay attention to you, because they respect you. It’s all about earning respect, one conversation at a time.
Who is to say one way of operating is better than another? Maybe the better question is – does that even matter? The way I see things, we are where we are, in this moment in time – we aren’t in the past and we aren’t in the future – let’s figure out the best way to work through the present – together.
IF YOU HAD TO SKIP TO THE END, START HERE
The only way to do that is to start understanding each other – where we’re coming from and how at the end of the day, we’re all on the same team. We all want to be happy at work and a big part of that is making our customers and the people around us happy. We all want to create lasting and meaningful relationships – both at work and in our personal lives. We all want to make delicious food for a living while making enough money to support ourselves in the process. We all want to be successful, even if we have different definitions of success. At the end of the day, we all get one shot at this amazing opportunity called life and it’s up to each of us to create something meaningful with it.
Let’s take all of the beautiful features of our culinary past – that’s what has gotten us here and use that rich history as faith to embrace the coming culinary future. Each brick laid by those who have come before us, paved the way to the amazing opportunity we have in front of us, today. The opportunity to connect with each other, our customers and our ingredients unlike ever before. This industry has and will continue to have it’s ups and downs – if we do the right thing by working together, we can forge a better path ahead, but we have to do so together – with open eyes and more importantly, open ears.
All it takes is one word – Listen. Listen to the people around you. Listen to the people that don’t look like you. Listen to the people with different sexual orientation than you. Listen to people who were born in a different country from you and who have different life experiences than you. Listen to the people that make more money than you, but also listen to the people who make less than you.
Recently we had Bob Burg on the podcast where he joined us to talk about his new book (he’s the bestselling author of The Go-Giver). He said something truly profound that I’d venture to guess when put into action, can bridge any and all gaps of communication (verbal or otherwise):
“To be empathetic does not mean that you necessarily have to understand exactly how the other person feels. You simply have to be able to understand AND be able to communicate that you understand they are feeling something – and that this something is distressing to them and that you’re there to help them through that.”
So, my challenge to you is this – next time you have a disagreement with someone in your life – regardless of age – listen with empathy. Don’t speak to be understood, but rather listen to better understand.
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